The career of Guillermo Del Toro has zigzagged from atmospheric (and gruesome) art films like Cronos (1992), in his native country of Spain, to razor-sharp Hollywood productions like Mimic (1997).
These types of movie tend to be received quite differently; his Spanish works are praised as serious allegories of a nation's destiny, while his American films are enjoyed or dismissed as throwaway entertainment.
But Del Toro has always remained true to himself and his work is consistent. With The Devil's Backbone, he has created his finest film.
After a poetic prologue, in which a mysterious voice-over ponders the definition of a ghost, the story starts quietly. Events during the Spanish Civil War lead a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), to an orphanage in a small, isolated village.
The disquiet builds slowly, as we investigate the tensions surrounding the present relationships between the adults who run the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Casares (Federico Luppi), and the terrible enigmas hidden in the recent past of the children.
The Devil's Backbone is a wonderful tonic for anyone who is currently tired of static, talky films. At every moment, this film is a marvel of sight and sound. Rooms hum, winds blow, characters interrelate through looks and gestures, and the camera wastes no opportunity to transform even the simplest walk down a corridor into a thrilling encounter with the unknown.
This is essentially a ghost story, centred on the shadowy figure of a dead child named Santi and his enigmatic motives in periodically appearing to the living. In its downplaying of these apparitions and its reliance on relatively simple special effects, the film recalls Val Lewton's poetic horror films (such as Cat People, 1942) or, more recently, The Sixth Sense (1999).
But Del Toro also has a taste for all that is agonising, perverse or downright grotesque. From early signs of physical handicap and hardship (such as Carmen's artificial leg), the film delights in eventually transforming itself into a grisly revenge melodrama.
This is truly a moral tale. Del Toro has no time for the modern, wishy-washy notion that we are all victims of society, never to blame for the rotten things we do. This story has an unmistakeable bad seed, the grown-up orphan Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). A seductive devil on a short fuse, his greedy ambition to find the gold hidden by rebels in the orphanage drives the film to its delirious climax.
Although sketched in broad, bold strokes, the adult characters are fascinating. Jacinto lures Carmen and Casares into an ordeal of temptation and doubt. And through it all the children, who have their own big problems to deal with, watch in fascination and terror.
This is a beautifully constructed film, coherent and organic at all levels. Every detail (even to the final credits) eventually relates to the theme of family, and its absence. Many ghost tales since Henry James have used the figure of the orphan (as in the recent The Others), but Spanish filmmakers like to connect the primal trauma of a child's separation from his or her parents to a grim parade of historic wars and social schisms.
It is a film rich in metaphor (in contradistinction to The Mothman Prophecies ). The figure of the ghost comes to stand for many things – especially the unresolved, repressed problems lurking in a nation as in an individual psyche.
The image of a huge, unexploded bomb (seen being dropped in the prologue) lodged ominously in the village's central courtyard constantly reminds us of this social context, and also adds a surreal, menacing touch worthy of Luis Buñuel.
The Devil's Backbone is a richly satisfying film of supernatural horror.
MORE Del Toro: Hellboy
© Adrian Martin May 2001